Over the last six months, claims of a tie between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime have centered around an infamous Jordanian national named Ahmed al-Khalayeh, who operates under the nom de guerre of Abu Musab Zarqawi. Yet some European and even American intelligence sources question the designation of him as an al-Qaeda operative, instead citing Zarqawi as the leader of an independent terrorist organization called al-Tawhid. The issue of Zarqawi's affiliation is a crucial one, as it goes to the heart of the recent debate over whether or not the Bush administration fabricated a link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime in order to justify its case for war.
This analysis will endeavor to show readers who Zarqawi is, what he's been up to, and his critical importance to the post-Afghanistan al-Qaeda network....
To begin with, after 9/11 Zarqawi was not listed as one of al-Qaeda's top leaders unlike such notables as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Mohammed Atef. Indeed, after reading several books devoted to the organization, only one, Rohan Gunaratna's Inside Al-Qaeda contains even a mention of Zarqawi in a list of half a dozen other senior operations chiefs still at large.
As a result of his relative anonymity, it would have been easy to overlook Zarqawi's terrorist activities prior to 9/11. He first appeared on the intelligence radar as an al-Qaeda leader during the Millennium Plot, in which he has been named in absentia as a conspirator under his real name. In the aftermath of the plot, he traveled to Afghanistan and assumed command of an al-Qaeda training camps near the Afghan city of Herat which oversaw the training and indoctrination of both Jordanian and Palestinian recruits for the organization. While al-Qaeda maintained numerous training camps in Afghanistan, Zarqawi's presence at the camps near Herat is particularly concerning because this is exactly where the group was said to have established a nuclear laboratory focused on creating a radiological dispersal weapon during the late 1990s.
During Operation Enduring Freedom, Zarqawi fled to Iran with other top al-Qaeda leaders, where he was harbored by members of the IRGC. From Iran, he oversaw the operation of an al-Qaeda affiliate organization called al-Tawhid, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has a Eurasian reach extending into Germany, Karachaevo-Cherkessia (a Russian autonomous republic that borders Georgia), Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian expatriate community.
Zarqawi left Iran in May 2002 for Iraq and while the Newsweek article cited above statements that he was expelled, Michael Ledeen attributes a far more sinister motivation behind the actions of the Iranians, citing a ferrying of al-Qaeda operatives in Iranian to Hezbollah's Bekaa Valley or Ein al-Hilweh. The ample evidence of al-Qaeda fighters arriving in Lebanon, in my opinion, would seem to support Ledeen's view in this regard.
While in Iraq, Zarqawi evidently ordered the assassination of US diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. It is interesting to note that one of the two killers working for Zarqawi was a known Libyan extremists, as this could indicate a tie between Zarqawi and al-Jamaa al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah bi Libya, al-Qaeda's Libyan affiliate - yet another sign of just how high up he is within the organization. US Secretary of State Collin Powell summarized Zarqawi's activities in Iraq during his February 2003 speech to the United Nations. Zarqawi's deputy Moammar Ahmad Yussef, evidently oversaw the killing from Syria but was subsequently detained either in Syria or Turkey, thereby providing the US with critical information regarding al-Qaeda's ties with the Iraqi regime.
In any event, Zarqawi evidently did a lot of traveling, going from Iran to Baghdad to northern Iraq to Lebanon to Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, where he appears to have laid the groundwork for al-Qaeda's thwarted chemical weapons plots in Europe between December 2002 and February 2003. These attacks, which appear to have been primarily orchestrated by the organization's robust Algerian expatriate wing that I noted in a previous special analysis. For the purposes of the plots in Europe, Zarqawi apparently worked closely with Abu Khabab, the head of al-Qaeda's WMD program, which was on the verge of chemical and biological arms production. Other Zarqawi associates identified by US intelligence include Abu Taisir, Abu Ashraf, Abu Atiya, and Abu Hafs, all of whom are still at large.
The attacks in Europe, had they succeeded, would have likely killed hundreds of European civilians and my own personal inclination is that they constituted an attempt by the organization to carry out mass casualty attacks in Europe in order to deter US military actions with Iraq, further radicalize Muslim expatriate populations in Europe, and possibly convince the European governments that interference in al-Qaeda's activities in the Middle East was not worth the lives of their citizens. And according to the State Department's 2002 Report on Global Terrorism, Zarqawi also sought to attack US and Russian targets as well.
At some point before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Zarqawi fled to Iran, where he remains to this day. Most recently, he ordered the attack on Jewish and Spanish targets in Morocco.
The bottom line is that Zarqawi is clearly a rising star within the al-Qaeda hierarchy and has planned mass casualty terrorist attacks on three continents. So long as he continues to operate freely he will continue to target Western, Jewish, and moderate Arab governments. Claims that he only maintains a peripheral relationship with al-Qaeda, such as those made by an anonymous source in this Washington Post story simply do not square with the information available to the public, which demonstrate a robust relationship between Zarqawi and the global al-Qaeda network.